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Can the consumer packaged goods industry be sustainable?

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The key to long-term, sustainable businesses may lie in reverse-engineering the modern consumer packaged goods (CPG) industry. The question is: how?

Today I read an article from Fast Company that suggests that sustainable consumption—a hot topic at the recent World Economic Forum in Davos—can be instrumental in long-term company growth.

Sustainable consumption, as I understand it, involves leading consumers to value-driven products and companies, meeting the consumer on a more personal level and adapting to their social, economic and environmental concerns. The author points to GE’s Ecomagination project and Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan as examples of mainstream company initiatives that offer a measure of environmental security alongside profitability.

I like how the article points to food as a primary arena for sustainable consumption. Organic, local, seasonal, recyclable, fair trade—all are mainstays and drivers of consumption patterns in the natural foods market, and now they are starting filter into the mainstream.

Much of the effort on this front comes in the form of retooling the modern CPG. I like to think of Annie’s Inc.—they’ve essentially reverse-engineered the existing packaged food model (see: Kraft) into a brand that is socially and environmentally responsible and connects with consumers on a personal level.

Other CPGs, like Clorox, have started to inject some of this sustainability ethos into their company missions in order to the meet the new, conscious consumers where they live. Or a retailer like Walmart, which, inch by inch, is achieving some form of responsible supply chain management. Thus far, such initiatives seem to be paying off.

Read as: Sustainable is marketable.

The word sustainability, however, means much more than value-driven market opportunity. And it tends to run counter to the age-old American absolute of capital-p Production. The post-apocalyptic dystopian futurist in me wonders whether there will ever come time when resource limitations prompt businesses to value stability over growth. Stasis, of course, is anathema to the modern businessman.

But ye businessmen of tomorrow, how then to build a sustainable future? Tell me in the comments below.

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